chat with a local :: Amy Fleischer

We’re all about women in science, and so proud to have many of them on Cape Cod. Amy Fleischer is a science teacher at Nauset Regional Middle School and a former Northeast Regional Leader for the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. She also previously served as the Education Director at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary! Amy was on Dr. Robert Ballard’s E/V Nautilus during the April 2015 Gulf-Integrated Spill Response (GISR) expedition. She is pretty amazing and we were delighted to chat with her ahead of the upcoming Community Conversations: Climate Change event at Cape Cod Beer on April 2 where she will be a speaker.

Are you a Cape native?
Although I grew up in Framingham, MA, the Cape has always been a big part of my life. My aunt had a second home in Dennisport when I was little and my whole extended family spent many happy weeks in the summer walking and playing on the beach there. When I was a teenager, she moved to Harwichport and the time I spent on Cape over the next ten years extended to year-round visits.

In 2010, I was working in the education department at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Florida. I wanted to move back to Massachusetts to be closer to my family and was thrilled to learn that Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a strong focus on marine education, was looking for an Education Director. I moved first to Brewster for a year and then found my current home in Wellfleet.

Tell us about your day job as a science teacher at Nauset … your classroom seems really fun!
Ah, do you have an hour and a half?

My goal as a science teacher is to teach my students how the world works. That’s how I look at it: there are systems on Earth that operate on enduring principles (high always flows to low, hot always flows to cold, matter is always conserved, etc.) If we/ the students can understand the mechanisms of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, then we/ the students will be incredibly prepared to generate solutions to problems that arise, e.g. climate change. I’m definitely encouraging my students to go into science, but I care more that they are informed citizens who can make good decisions based on their scientific knowledge and ability to analyze evidence, e.g. deciding what fertilizer to buy for their lawn or how to vote in a town water referendum.

To accomplish this, I have to make it real and relevant. When we learn about the water cycle, we are building models of the Cape Cod aquifer and then running water through them. They are tracking their household’s water usage and comparing it to the data on (an amazing Cape Cod Commission project). We pollute our aquifers and model the methods that scientists employed in the Massachusetts Military Reservation clean-up. When we study natural hazards, each student is analyzing their town’s natural hazard plan on their town’s Web site.

My second goal as a science teacher – equally important to the first goal – is to get the students to believe that they are scientists: that a scientist is just someone who explores the world in an organized way. They can do everything a real scientist can do – from using scientific tools to collecting and analyzing data and finding real world applications.

To accomplish this, I put them in the role of scientist as much as possible. They are doing investigations and using the scientific method constantly. They are working in lab groups and creating models and reports. And, I want them to learn that scientists are part of the fabric of our community. Of course, we talk about Isaac Newton – the man created Calculus before he was 26, he deserves the recognition! But we also invite contemporary local scientists into our classroom. Mark Borrelli, coastal geologist at the Center for Coastal Studies, will be kicking off our exploration of how the Cape was formed in a few weeks. Andrea Bogomolni, marine mammal toxicologist at WHOI, answered the students’ questions about chemistry over Skype a few weeks ago.

In general, I work hard to create a science learning community where the students see themselves and each other as a part of the learning process; it’s hopefully not just about the student-teacher relationship. What I love best is when this aspect is working really well –  when I have practiced with them the tools to learn and communicate, and I can step back and let them complete a lab or have an engaging discussion fit-to-finish. A true highlight was our turtle dissection last year in grade 7, the students were extraordinary in their approach to this: they were able to come in and dissect a turtle for an hour and I didn’t have to give one direction. Every single one of them was a real scientist that day.

We hear you have some exciting summer plans … what will you be up to?
Yes! I am going to be on board Dr. Bob Ballard’s ship, the E/V Nautilus, as a Lead Science Communication Fellow during the month of July. We will be exploring the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California with ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) and mapping the ocean floor with sonar technology. We broadcast video of the dives live from the ship on and one of my jobs is to facilitate the live narration of the video feed with commentary from the scientists, the ROV pilots, and the navigator – AND I answer questions submitted through the Web site as they come through. I hope to hear from many Cape Codders! I also do live video interactions with schools, museums, and community organizations from the ship – another great way to take questions and share my love of ocean exploration.

My work on E/V Nautilus has a positive feedback loop with my work in the classroom. I can bring my communication skills and understanding of the science to my work on E/V Nautilus, and then I can bring current scientific research and new knowledge of technology and engineering in ocean exploration back to my students at Nauset.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in science?
A hundred percent: Dr. Eugenie Clark, the Shark Lady (Google her!). My grandmother used to read me the children’s book that had been written about her, and I grew up going to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, FL, which she had founded.  When I had the opportunity to work there as an adult, it was a dream come true. One day, I walked into her office and introduced myself. She called me up later that afternoon and offered me a place on her upcoming research trip in Bali, and many wonderful adventures with her followed.  For all of the things she taught me about science and diving though, she taught me a lot more about the kindness of holding the door open for the person coming up behind you.

What activities and experiences would you encourage Cape Cod families to do to connect more deeply with our ecosystem?
The best thing on Cape Cod for girls is The Gills Club, the amazing “smart about sharks” education program run by Cynthia Wigren and Marianne Long at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. They partner with the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History for monthly education programs and send a wonderful newsletter that connects girls here with female shark scientists all over the world. Cynthia is kicking off the Women In Science speaker series at the Wellfleet Library this weekend!

I would also encourage families to take walks at all times of year and to engage their kids in conversation about what they notice. Be observers of the natural world – and then, be stewards: take a trash bag with you and collect trash, participate in a sea turtle rescue training program at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, build a bluebird box, etc.

What’s your favorite way to spend a Cape Cod day?
In the shoulder season, my “best” day is a stop at PB Boulangerie in Wellfleet for a croissant and hot chocolate, followed by a hike on the Pamet Trail System/ Ballston Beach in Truro. I’ll spend some time in the sun on my back deck while listening to WCAI Cape and Islands Public Radio. Then, I’ll meet up with friends at the Local Break in Eastham for dinner and go to some amazing programming at the WHAT in Wellfleet.

Amy, thank you so much for chatting with us and most importantly, for being a role model to girls and women in our community! Be sure to follow Amy’s work this summer aboard the E/V Nautilus.

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